July 17, 2014 seems to have started as a normal day for Eric Garner. By the middle of the afternoon, Garner, who was out on bail for several minor offenses, including selling single cigarettes, was on the sidewalk in Tompkinsville, on Staten Island. He had reportedly just broken up a fight when police approached him about selling loosies. Police arrested him, and placed him in a banned chokehold as he protested—over and over—that he couldn’t breathe. Within an hour, the 43-year-old was dead at a hospital.
Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Garner’s early death, and with that it marks the one-year anniversary of the United States’ focus on police violence against black Americans. The story didn’t achieve full national attention until a month later, with Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, but Garner’s death provides a starting point for a litany: Garner, Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray—and many others whose names are unknown or less known. Garner’s last words, the repeated plea “I can’t breathe,” have become a slogan for protestors against police violence across the United States.
Garner’s death was not, of course, the beginning of a pattern; it was only the beginning of a new awareness and attention within the media to something many African Americans have endured and discussed for decades. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has connected police violence against African Americans with a national identity based on the plunder of people of color stretching back to before the nation’s foundation. But the year has been important and potentially pivotal. These stories aren’t going away—this week, there’s a new mystery with the death of Sandra Bland. Here are three important lessons for Americans since July 17, 2014.